The Reluctant Shaman

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The Reluctant Shaman Powered By Docstoc
					AZIMUTH


By Jack Sanger




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Book 1




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                                  Chapter One
                  To know oneself is a journey that requires a beginning




  If a man could be said to be constructed from the tools of his work, then Kamil
was just such a man. He laboured with pen and paper and from them he built
history. His flesh was as dry and pale as bleached parchment, his blood so dark it
could have been extracted from crushed beetles and yet his intelligence was as
sharp as the knife he used to give edge to his quills. If, in total, he could be
thought of as a book, it would be a thick, learned, heavily annotated leather-
bound tome, with a simple, modest title and his name, in small letters, beneath.
And it would gather dust, rarely read except by other scholars, in the Great
Library.
  Yet, this literary hermit, this fugitive from commercial bustle, from adventure
and risk and the intoxication of brushing up against others, was chosen by Fate to
play a formidable role in the affairs of the Empire, a role which would determine
the outcome of future battles, uncover deadly intrigues and would determine
generations of royal lineage!
  This unforeseen and at times terrifying course of events was set properly in
motion when Kamil wrote the following letter to the Princess Sabiya, Daughter of
the Great Emperor Haidar:


     It has been my privilege, as Your Majesty’s servant, to have collected together
  these events from the life of the Magus, in accordance with the wishes of your
  blessed Father, Emperor Haidar. There were so many stories that it would seem
  impossible for one, even so great, to have been at the heart of them all. Yet…


     What I have done is concentrate on those tales upon which everyone seems to
  agree. Imagine, as you read this, that so much else could be written here for his



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  journeyings were long and the changes in him greater than I can possibly record.
  For that, my humble apologies. Upon the events of his life after the first Great
  Journey, I have hardly touched, just as one might dip a hand into a stream. So
  there is no account here of that one great event that led to his lasting fame as a
  peacemaker, the one we all grew up hearing about at school and from our tutors.
  The settling of the Great War. This will be the work of another period of
  incarceration with my pen!


     One final word. I have written in a manner that combines fact with the
  elaborations of a poet. Sometimes I have written about acts and events which
  may not be appropriate for the ear of a Princess. I know not about these matters.
  If anything here embarrasses or upsets you, I apologise unreservedly, though your
  Father told me to hold nothing back on any matter. He says you combine a
  Son’s vulgarity with a Daughter’s imagination! I have conjured what I could not
  know. I have entered the thoughts of the Magus and reported his conversations.
  It is to make the tale engage with You, its audience, My Lady. Yet I feel it is not
  an excess. Rather, it is poor clothing for one of his stature. But one such as he
  deserves some clothing, do you not think?


  The book had taken him three years to write in his painstaking hand. He had
consulted what existed in the Great Library. He had laid it, finally, thick sheet
divided from thick sheet by the finest, smokily translucent paper, in a specially
constructed, simple wooden box lined with velvet. The cover sheet was stamped
with his name and bore the title:



                               Tales of the Magus

                          The First Great Journey




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  And now, before him, sat the Royal Tutor, staring at him with a hostile,
compelling gaze, a man who knew that this work had been commissioned for
Princess Sabiya’s personal education into matters moral and spiritual – a
rejection of his own role and status within the court!.
  -You say she has read it? Kamil asked the tutor, at last.
  -Reading is not understanding. Some read from letter to letter. Some from
page to page. Who knows what they understand?
  -Did she like it?
  -It is not my privilege or place to divine her royal feelings. As I have just told
you, I am to bring you to the Palace immediately, provide you with a servant and
two rooms, one for sleeping and the other to receive Her Majesty, with a lamp
that burns well for reading, two comfortable chairs and a small table for the book,
which will rest between you. Now!
  -I have hardly left my house and garden in ten years, Kamil groaned.
  -That is of no interest.


                                           Ø


  Hours later he was ensconced in his palace rooms, comfortably rested and fed.
As the hour reached six, there was a rap at the door.
  -Come in! he ventured.
  The door swung open, an enormous, armed guard peered inside and then
stood aside to allow the Princess to enter. She was too slim to be beautiful to
Kamil’s eye and too tall for all but a royal family member. Her black skin
revealed her Father’s predilection for Ethiopia. Her eyes were a glittering blue,
set wide apart, above the family’s long shallow nose. Her rich, plump red lips
pouted at him.
  -Does it take so long to come from the sea to my palace?
  -I am sorry, your Majesty, he said, falling to his knees. I came as soon as the
packing and the carriage would allow.
  -Get up! You couldn’t have much to pack, looking at you. Enough! I am
anxious to start. Wait outside, she commanded the guard and thrust the door


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shut after him. Good, you have your book. It sat in a tall pile on the table
between them. Let us sit. We can begin. The first Tale. Why is it called The
Fool? I could see no fool in it.
  He stroked his beard, nervously, -After the Tarot, Princess.
  -What is that? I will have the Royal Tutor banished to hell. I seem to know
nothing of this world!
  He could see that stories of her impetuousness and disregard for protocol were
not misplaced. He said softly, dropping his voice, -The Cards of Mystery. They
plumb the heart and mind, the past, the present and, in some hands, the future.
  -I must see them! You have them?
  -I do, your Majesty. He reached to the floor by his side and lifted into sight a
small, rectangular block, wrapped in purple silk. He undid the wrapping and
placed it beside the book so that a deck of ornate cards sat, face down upon it. He
picked them up, turned them and fanned their faces before her. The bright reds,
yellows, blues and greens flashed in the lamp light. She saw courtiers, swords,
coins, cups and batons. She pulled back.
  -I am not sure I like them!
  -It is too early. In time. They may be suspicious of you, too! He placed them
back as he had found them. I have arranged the Major Arcana according to our
needs. These are the powerful ones that speak of the cycles within our lives. Let
us begin, one card at a time. Every tale begins with a card in sequence because I
have collected stories from the first thirty years of the Magus’s life. Would you
like to turn the first one over?
  With a degree of hesitance, rarely experienced by her, she did so.
  -So it is the Fool! she said. I can see that. Look, he carries all his possessions
over his shoulder and marches along with hounds snapping at his tails. Tell me,
Kamil, what does this mean?
  -Let me read the tale with that title, first, replied the man, relaxing a little.
Then we may talk of such things. Yet may I suggest, also, that we have no
conversation until a Tale is read? Interruptions break a tale’s flow as surely as a
weir does the river.
  She yawned, -If it must be so! You are a boring teacher. The young woman


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sank back and closed her eyes…




  He is dancing in the smallest space where red merges with black, doing
cartwheels, his irises huge in the velvet light. Baby in the womb of his Mother.
She is on a horse, side-saddle. In a scrubland. Dust rolling from the hooves. In a
country where solitary women are hunted like game.
  The Mother keeps to the lee of the low hills, eyes alight, burning, boring into
the heat mists and shadowy concealments, searching for sudden silhouettes or
light flashes. Her roan horse canters easily and skilfully across the rough
terrain. Signals from her hands and heels point him in the direction of the
falling sun but he decides on the detail.
  The baby bounces, jiggles, opens and closes its eyes, clenches its fingers and
toes. The baby smiles. She already knows his name. She had sat staring at the
fire and as she made fantastical creatures from the flames, smoke and sticks
there was a crackle and a whisper from the chimney. It mouthed his name. A
name she would never tell another.
  The Mother is a fierce warrior in her own right. Whether she fights on her
horse, legs each side like a man, or as now, to give the child some comfort, she is
feared in battle. Beneath her purple brocaded travel robe hangs a cross belt
from her shoulder, down between her breasts, to her hip. A dagger in its pouch
is secured to it. Her two handed sword is scabbarded behind her on a carved
cross belt harness. Her black hair is coiled and held by a bone needle whose
point has been dipped in the venom of a water snake. In the curling toes of her
shoes are sachets of plant extract to inflame the senses, produce coma or instil
forbearance in the very face of death. Her handsome face is impassive, brown
skin darkened by sun and wind.



                                                                                    7
  The roan suddenly slows and turns into a thicket of scrub, which is also home
to some small trees. It snickers to calm her and pushes its way into the green
clearing. Water bubbles and coils in a small pool only to sink a few strides
further back into the underground stream. The water has a pinkish hue, dyed
by the roots of a plant she recognises. She slips from the horse’s back. It stands
and waits until she has drunk. She fills the leather bottles from the saddle and
makes a clicking noise with her tongue. The horse drops his head and whinnies
softly and begins to drink. Inside, the Mother feels the boy’s renewed swimming
motions. The cold water entering her stomach excites him.
  She takes compressed fruit biscuits from the saddlebag and squats by the
water. She feels the baby press into her pelvis and knows it won’t be long. The
baby stands on his head, as though practising to be born. When the horse has
drunk and chewed some grass, it raises its head to the breeze. It listens for some
time. She waits for it. It drops its head and walks back to the passage through
the bushes that had admitted them. It stops and paws the ground. She rises,
returns the water bottles and climbs up. It waits for her to take loose hold of the
reins and then edges out of the thicket.
  Some distance on, with the sun down and a sky spiked by steely stars, she is
curled up in a blanket. There is no fire, nothing to give signal to this sleeping
place. She is lying against the back of a rock which still radiates the heat of the
day. The roan stands nearby, sleeping too. One of its ears remains cocked.
Inside her, the boy dozes, his eyes shut and dreaming of other journeys, other
times.
  It is still dark and has become chill when the horse’s nose nudges her awake.
Despite the child’s added weight she is standing in one instant motion. The
horse’s head is cocked, its eyes wide. She picks up the perturbation in the air.
Several riders, perhaps half an hour behind.
  The horse is watered while she eats in the saddle. Her stomach is heavy but
she tells the child to rest a little more. This day should see them both safe.
Behind, a fine skein of light suggests the coming of the day. The ground is rising
towards a high ridge and the horse picks its way through a cold cut in the
sandstone.


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  When her Father came to know that she would take this journey so that the
boy might grow up in a place where the tide of war had not yet lapped, he
entrusted her to this animal. He told her that the beast had been born with both
sun and moon full in the sky. Its Mother had died at the birth but the foal had
sniffed her body and then walked to her Father to be fed. Since the horse’s
Mother had made this journey many times, her Father said that the stallion
would know its way, It had demonstrated this on other missions, following the
paths its Mother had discovered and used. Her Father had held the horse’s
mane and talked softly to it, telling it what was now expected of it. The roan,
with its distinctive strawberry blotches, pressed its ear to his cheek, tipping its
head in small nods of acknowledgement. Her Father said that the roan was
unique, one in an entire generation.
  They reach a high point, just below the ridge. There is a little foliage, mostly
dry bushes and grass. She is able to rest for a moment and scan the land below.
There is some new cloud, enough to mask the opening sun. She picks out the
three riders, still some distance away. They ride with very straight backs, their
legs straight and thrust out before them. Men from the north. All three horses
are black, taken and broken from the wild, small but stocky and at home in
these foothills.
  She considers her next step. She can outrun them but at a possible cost to her
child. She can hide but if one is a tracker, they will find her. Soon. She can
fight. Then the child would need protecting. Fight and flight threaten her life
equally. Her one advantage is that of surprise. She looks round and makes her
decision.


                                           Ø


  The three riders are in single file. At the front is an old man with one arm. He
is bent over his horse’s neck, watching the ground. He carries only a small, one-
handed, hunting bow, tied to his saddle. Behind him are two fighting men.
They are fully armed. One’s eyes sweep the land to the left, the other’s the land


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to the right. Neither holds reins. Their hands are free to rest on sheathed
swords and grip the blunt knobs of their holstered throwing knives. They are
garbed in leather battle-wear. Their stiff hide hats are pointed and have chain-
flaps. One of them asks a question of the tracker. He shrugs. She can hear him
tell them that the roan leaves little sign of its passing or the time that has
elapsed since it travelled that way. She remembers how her horse slipped away
to leave its business in a hidden place. She is satisfied that she has only two real
adversaries. The old man does not fight.


                                           Ø


  The trio push their horses up on to a tiny plateau, little more than a ledge.
The old man raises his head and mutters to the others. They draw alongside.
They stare at the small fire and suspended above it a flat stone supported by
rocks. On top are a number of small cakes, baking. The smell of the cakes
suddenly rushes over them. It is like a string of memories; of being a child
again, holding their Mothers’ hands in the village kitchen, the sweetmeats at
funeral parties and weddings, the little trifles they exchanged with their brides
on the first night of their nuptials, the rich foods they had eaten when they
plundered the houses of their enemies, the scent of the young girls they had
taken for their pleasure. Even the old man’s eyes water in dim reminiscence.
  They form into a triangle around the oven, facing away from it. Their eyes
scour the hillside. There is no sign of their quarry. But she can only be a few
strides away, concealed. The cakes have reached maturity. She must have been
startled by them and had to move quickly. They know she has to be watched
carefully. She has killed men in hand to hand fighting. There are stories of her
ambushing a troop of fighting men with just three comrades. Legend has it that
lightning jumps from her eyes and the power of winter avalanches is in her
wrists. This they do not believe for she is a mortal woman, carrying a child who
must die. The blood heir. Heir for heir.
  One drops from his horse and walks to the fire. -Why do we not eat her
breakfast and gain strength for what lies ahead, he suggests. He pokes a cake


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and juggles it off the stone, throwing it from hand to hand. The spinning cake
gives extra scent to the nose, even as it cools.
   -Be careful of her food for she is a sorceress, warns the old man but the teeth
have bitten and the tongue is aflame with desire. He turns and smiles, wolfing
it down.
   -You must eat!, he insists, suddenly snarling, to his companions. - Come!
Eat!*


                                            Ø

  He turns on them. He has changed. His eyes are wide and protruding.
Flecks of pink saliva dribble down his jaw. He waves his sword at them as if to
force them. Their horses rear and back away. He follows them jerkily, now
slashing at the legs of the old man. There is a whisper through the air and a
throwing knife penetrates his larynx. Silently, he slumps to the ground. His
dark blood joins with the pink liquid and crumbs of the cake oozing from his
mouth. His comrade pulls out the throwing blade, cleans it and returns it to its
holster. His killer’s eyes meet those of the old man. - And now there are two of
us. Still enough do you not think?
  -I am no fighting man, says the gnarled one. I have one arm and I am too
old. I was paid by the clan to lead you to her. Not to fight her. I would advise
you to go back. She is too strong for you.
  -I cannot do so. I am pledged to them. They have paid the first half of my
bounty. It is my honour. It is for this I live. The child must die. It is said that if
he lives he might one day take from them their name and the stories of their
Fathers. You may go. He draws out a leather pouch with a tied neck and
passes it to him. The old man turns his horse and it picks its way back down the
hillside. The remaining man walks over to the oven and kicks the stone and
cakes across the earth.


                                            Ø




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  From where she sits among the rocks he appears calm and almost leisurely
as he remounts. He has the posture of one who cares not to lose his life in the
mission to take hers and that of her child. His current masters are from a tribe
that had once been content possessing the lands adjacent to her family’s valleys.
They had cohabited in relative peace. There was even some intermarriage. But
last year the eldest Son was killed while out on his own, riding. His body was
found on her Father’s land. A knife with the characteristic horse head markings
of her family was found in his back. The dead man’s Brother vowed vengeance.
A life for a life. She was the only child of her Father. There have been several
attempts upon her life. Now this. Mother and child.


                                           Ø


  She feels the baby move again. He is kicking and pummelling her with his
little fists. As though asking her whether her body will open for him. She
presses her hand against her stomach and whispers that he should wait. The
activity stops.
  She stretches. Unwinds. She is directly above him on a ledge. He is half
aware of her. But the distance is too far for her to jump. He presents too
foreshortened a target for her knife. She can only see the point of his cap and
his shoulders, which have the inevitable metal strips to protect against the force
of a slashing sword blow. He rides slowly out of sight and will emerge a few
seconds later, level with where she is crouched. He will see the roan and stop
before he is in full view. He will know she is waiting there. It will be a life and a
death. Her throwing knife is gripped, point upwards, in her palm. She takes a
position where she cannot be seen once he comes onto the ledge, and waits.
  -You are there, Witch Princess? She does not answer. Her mind is like the
coldest night of winter. A blackness so deep and icy that emotion cannot seed
itself. She reaches out her senses towards him and against the mental backdrop
the warmth of his presence becomes palpable. He has dismounted and is
flattened against the rock wall that bends to where she waits. She pictures his
sword held above his head, held in both hands.


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   -Come out and do battle. I know of your fame. It will give me pleasure to
end the life of such a one. She sees his fingers tighten on the sword’s handle. He
moves slowly around the wall. Such is the man’s stupidity.
  Suddenly with the speed of a striking snake, she launches herself away from
the wall. Almost at the same moment his sword flashes down catching only a
fraction of wool padding from her heel. As it rings on the ground her wrists
thrust the knife upwards. It judders in her palm as it enters his chest, deflecting
off a rib and then sinking deep. He falls beside her, gasping. She stands over
him.
  -You have killed me Witch. I am dishonoured.
  -You are misled, she says. I have saved your honour. He stares at her
through clouding eyes. She squats by his ear. Your paymasters’ Son caught me
bathing. He roped me like a wild pony and took his pleasure in my body. As he
fell off me and lay spent I broke free and ran for my knife. He turned to flee but
my aim was true. I cleaned his manhood and retied his trousers so no-one
would know he had taken me. It is his child you would have killed. The child of
those who paid you.
  The man smiles. He is dead.


                                          Ø


  She gives birth to the boy on the down slopes of the next gentle valley. She is
strong and cuts the umbilical cord and ties it at each end. She spends the next
day and night suckling him and then places him in a travelling basket on the
roan. She takes his mane and whispers instructions. His head nods
acknowledgement and he trots away down the slope. It is a soft night. She
takes her enemies’ horses and rides back the way she has come.




                                          ‫٭‬


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  The Princess eventually opened her eyes. -It is better to listen to you than to
read it myself. I understand much more. This time I like the Mother. All I could
think the first time I read it was that she abandoned her child.
  -She is strong.
  -I would like to be like her. I will ask my Father to find someone to teach me
the sword and bow! Are they not still the symbols of a true warrior? It is more
romantic than the pistol. I am an expert with the pistol! She settled again. I have
a question. In all the tales you mention no names. There are neither the names
of people nor of places and little of animals and plants. The Magus remains a
mystery as with all else. Why do we not know these things? His name above all
else?
  Kamil pondered for a while. -In the records we have he went by many names.
Many clans have claimed descent from him. It was a long time ago. Scholars
argue about the place and time of this man’s history. Some feel that the tales
were carried along the silk route from the east and tribes adopted them as their
own. Others that he was a great warrior from the ice and sand of the far north. I
decided, therefore, to portray him without a name, from boyhood to Magus.
Here he is The Fool, for he knows nothing and has begun the great journey of life.
He is a cipher for the reader to interpret how he or she wishes. And just so with
the unnamed lands and the people he meets upon them. Such a mystery houses
the reader in a tent of mirrors, reflecting the eyes back into the self.
  She nodded, as if satisfied. -It is so. The baby is born. It has no Mother to
nurture it. It is left in the care of a magical horse. That is enough for one day.
Tomorrow, at the same time, you will read the second tale, Kamil. It is the tale of
The Magician. I remember him, although the further names I have forgotten.
  -I will be pleased to obey you, Princess Sabiya.




                                                                                     14
                                 Chapter Two
                      Believing what is seen is a form of blindness


  When she had plumped the cushions, twisted and turned and finally settled
herself, Princess Sabiya smiled expectantly. -In a moment I will turn over the
second card! He gave a short bow. The pack had not been touched since the
previous night. The yellow light lit their faces. She trusted his somewhat unused
features. She liked his shy earnestness, while Kamil was warming a little to her
direct ways and wilful character. He did not believe that royal blood was divine
but he believed in a special family of rulers, born to keep an empire together.
How else were the myriad ways of tribes to be kept in check? They had to believe
in something greater than themselves, divine or not. There were always troubles
in the further flung parts and those within who would crack the world like an egg.
  -But I have a second question about the tale of the Fool. She plunged on. Why
is it named The Fool? We have several fools in the court. They each have their
place. All but one are clowns. But the court fool rises above the others. No
matter how ill-conceived, churlish, defamatory or vengeful his remarks – The
Royal Tutor is his current victim - as long as he is funny, then he is allowed
licence to bait and hook one and all. There is no such person in the opening tale!
  He explained again, patiently, as he had done the previous evening. -No
Princess Sabiya. It is not thus in the Tarot. Here the Fool is the innocent,
starting out on a cycle of life’s great adventure. He has no history. He has
nothing to light his mind. Yet within him are the seeds of knowing. His life will
be fertile ground and many of these seeds will germinate and flower.
  Her face brightened as she reviewed the first Tale in her thoughts. -The Fool is
the baby! It is the Magus himself! He bowed again, smiling at her enthusiasm.
Good! She clapped her hands. I see it! She bent forward so that her perfume
enveloped him. It was almost too rich for his senses. Her long, dark fingers took
the second card and turned it face up, then placed it on top of The Fool. I see The
Magician. He has a table full of tricks. I remember this chapter…but read it to
me before my prattling takes up all our time. And I agree – it is better that I do



                                                                                     15
not interrupt. It is my nature but it would do little for your telling.
  He took the fine film away that covered the page and began.




  -How did I enter the world? asked the boy quizzically. He was sitting by a
fire, cross-legged. The moon was low and young. The night was cool but not
yet cold enough to wear skins. Today the strawberry roan had Fathered an
identical foal. He had then disappeared as though he had never been. The boy
felt both grief and happiness. The roan had looked after him like a guard dog.
He had shown little interest in a mare until earlier in the year, and it had
surprised everyone. He couldn’t think of a single day when he had not been
there. He had learned to ride his broad back, first in a saddle and then bare.
The horse had kept him balanced by counteracting his every slide towards
imbalance. He would make up stories and whisper them into the roan’s ear and
the horse would stare gravely at him as though every word was understood. He
had slept against the heat of its supine flanks, sheltered from the winter winds.
When he first walked, the roan would walk gingerly beside him, its head bowed,
offering its mane to hold. It was as though the roan was a conduit to another
world.
  So when he asked the question it was precipitated by the foal’s birth and the
shock that comes when there is a momentous ending to a stage of life. The roan
had gone for good. But was not the foal also the roan?
  Opposite him, also sitting cross-legged, was the man he called Father. The
firelight jigged across the man’s face revealing dark features, almost black eyes,



                                                                                  16
large hooked nose and the deep carved sandstone skin of a merchant traveller.
His Father was not from here. He had been born far south, in a different world
of markets, traders, clay houses and the sea. Once, he had been dressed in silks
with his head wrapped in cloth. He was the best horseman anyone could ever
remember but he had never ridden the roan. No-one but the boy had rested on
its back. The voice of his Father was deep and had a lilt which set him apart.
  -I cannot say, for I was not there. You entered my world a day or so after
you were born. Late in the evening there was a pawing at my tent. There you
were in a baby basket, tied to his saddle. It was a wonderful and strange thing.
I, who have no wife or children, who had rarely considered such possibilities,
became both Father and Mother to you, the moment I set my eyes upon yours.”
  -I must have had a Mother?
  -Of course.
  -She loved me but she abandoned me.
  -She left you with a fierce guardian. The horse stayed with you until now.
He felt you were ready to face life without him.
  -I am.
  -I believe the horse wanted to be sure I could look after you, too.
  -But he is still here.
  -Yes, in the foal. You are a man sometimes in your thinking.


                                            Ø


  Another night on one of the many journeys he took with his Father, he lay in
a blanket of rabbit fur by the fire and asked: “Is death the end of all things?”
  -What do you think, little man?
  -It feels so. But it also feels not so.
  -Very good. I think this…The boy waited for his Father to compose his
thought. These deeper moments could never be hurried. At the very moment
you understand life, Death will come with its assassin’s knife. For what else is
there for you when such knowledge is yours?
  There was silence between them, the older male considering his words and


                                                                                   17
how they might be made more precise, the younger weighing each syllable.
  -I will seek to understand what it is to be alive. One day I will understand
everything. It will be a glorious last thought!
  -That is a just ambition, my Son. You have an old spirit and therefore it may
be possible.
  -For you too, Father?
  -Not in this cycle. But I have important things to do, nevertheless. I am like a
ewe who has lost her offspring, I have to bring up someone else’s lamb.
  -And what was the pelt that deceived you? The boy laughed.
  -We have nobler spirits than sheep. You were dressed in mystery and
portent. How could I resist?
  The boy was becoming agitated by the analogy. - And the dressed lamb has
lost its Mother. Some say it kills its Mother at birth.
  -Do you feel you killed your Mother?
  He concentrated his brows. - No. She is not dead. But I brought her great
sorrow.


                                           Ø


  He learned many things from his Father. How to eat and drink in the desert
where the land stretches forever under harsh sun and nightly frost. How to sew
and clothe himself. How soils and plants give colour to cotton and leather.
How to make bread from wild grasses. How to throw a knife. How to tune the
wild horse’s spirit to his own. Which creatures needed his eye to subordinate
them and which required him to be still and look away. The smell of coming
rain. The tracks left by all living things, including men. How birds’ flight
patterns told of the unfolding events below them. How to smell what is good for
the body and what might poison it.
  But even greater than the gifts of survival, including that of the sword, was
the gift of second sight. That is, what lay below the visible. He learned that all
things that exist speak also of other things. But few men master this language.
  With other boys he was at ease but somehow apart. He was popular but they


                                                                                     18
fell away from him at certain times, as though too close to an unforgiving truth.
He did not share their ignorant waste of life or food or others’ respect. He was
taught by his Father that all should be conserved, unless his very life was
balanced on a thread.
  With girls he was less at ease. His Father was not able, consciously or
unconsciously, to teach him the words and gestures, the quality of gaze, to make
them and himself comfortable.


                                          Ø


  When he was twelve, he attended the circumcision ceremony of a boy who
was as close a friend as any. He joined the file of witnesses through the tent, to
observe and congratulate the youth on his purple and swollen manhood. His
Father asked him that evening about his feelings in the ceremony.
  -For some, such events are as important as the very being of the sun or the
moon, he said. For myself, I see no need for it. Pain must be chosen sparingly
and as a means to knowing something that is worth such an effort. But, he
smiled, it is not normally a matter of choice.
  His Father nodded in agreement and said nothing for a while.


                                          Ø


  By the age of fourteen, he was as tall as many men. His shoulders had begun
to broaden and he was the equal of most with horse and sword. His roan had
taken the place of its Father and he fully believed by now that it was the same
creature. It was uninterested in mares at their time of desire and always slept,
standing and untethered, near the entrance to his tent. It seemed to own
mysteries beyond its own life and experience.
  From time to time travellers came by to talk with his Father. They kept him
aware of what was happening in his own land. The boy showed little interest in
the ways of merchants.
                                          Ø


                                                                                   19
   One day he was following the trail of a wolf who had taken a sheep from the
family of the circumcised boy. It was not to exact retribution. He wished to
know more of why the wolf would dare to come so close to the tents. Wolves
never attacked men, no matter how they maltreated them, unless it was to
protect their young. It was a day-old trail but he and the roan between them
found scents, scuff-marks and droppings which might have defeated others, less
aware. He found himself, eventually, looking down at the family of cubs and
Mother, enjoying play. The Mother was thin from giving milk but still gave
them her attention.
   -They will give you no respite, he murmured, if you cannot provide for them;
they will suck you to death. This is why you will abandon them soon.
   He turned the roan back. Seconds later he sensed his Father riding towards
him. He pushed the roan into a canter. They met some minutes later.
   The two horses stood facing each other. Man and youth gazed at one
another. The man made a gesture with his hand indicating that words were
difficult.
   -We must leave?, the youth asked, reading his Father’s face.
   -You are ready?
   -I want to see the land of your elders. I have dreamt that this would come
about.
   The man marvelled, as he so often did, at the youth’s prescience.
   -The journey will take us much of your youth.
   -It is the path. The throwing knife cannot stay in its holster forever.
   The man smiled sadly. -I was grooming my horse and had a waking dream.
My Mother spoke to me.
   -She is alive?
   -For a little while.


                                          Ø


   They left without goodbyes, when it was still dark. All they needed for sleep


                                                                                   20
and survival was packed on their horses. His Father’s tall black stallion and the
strong roan. They were a mile from the village before they cantered. When
they reached the far ridge of the valley, the youth motioned them to stop and
indicated to his Father to look back. Although it was no small distance away,
they could just discern fires breaking out and hear the cries of battle.
  -We should go back, growled his Father, unsheathing his sword.
  -It is not our destiny, replied the youth. It is not our pain. He looked steadily
at his Father with eyes that revealed no remorse for the death and suffering.
The man looked back and said nothing but the wild anger slowly drained from
his face.


                                            Ø


  They rode on with the sun for a while and then took a rarely used trail south.
Skirting isolated tents and settlements, it was several weeks before they came to
a slow moving river. The burnt scrubland had given way to green. The youth
gathered knowledge of new birds and animals, of insects and plants. His Father
introduced him to the thread and hook, the stealthy hand in water and ways to
prepare and cook fish. They camped by the river for three days, resting the
horses, recovering their strength. They practised with their swords and the
youth now made his Father sweat.
  He also learned a new art. His Father sat, with a piece of cloth laid on a flat
rock and with three large seed cups set upon it. He would manipulate a bean
beneath them so that the watcher was deceived as to which cup sheltered it. He
learned also how to draw an egg from his ear, to change water to wine by the
sweep of his hand and to make a bird break from the opened thongs of his shirt.
He could order cut rope to join itself, slack rope to stand as stiff as a wand and
he could remove a pebble from a hand, substituting one of another colour in the
act of greeting.
  It was a great amusement to them both. Then, one day, as they journeyed,
the youth said solemnly,
  -Is life just a play of cups and beans?


                                                                                     21
  -For many, most perhaps. But for us? There is more. To learn such
deceptions helps us to uncover certain truths. Few that you will meet will let
you see the furthest depths in their eyes. Most would keep you at their surface.
As a practised conjurer, you will see this clearly. You will know the hearts of
those that appear to offer you gifts. You will see what they have hidden. The
skills that you have learned are as nothing compared to the ability to weigh
another’s spirit. This happens without words and without the play of hands. It
is a gift beyond my present life. But not yours. You have the sight. Not being
able to measure such things led me, mistakenly, from that which I desired most.
But from my ignorance eventually arose my journey to the north and my
Fathering of you.
 A month later his Father led them into a city.



                                           ‫٭‬
  The court historian lay down the final sheet of the tale of the Magician and
waited for Princess Sabiya to begin her questions. Her eyes were closed and her
breasts rose and fell slowly under her white cotton robe. Her hands were clasped
on her lap. When she did speak she did not open her eyes and it was not a
question.
  -I have already had my first day’s practice with sword and bow. They waken
an ancient familiarity in me. My Father is pleased. He has yet to procure a Son
from his wives. I am the alternative! I told him I was ready to be a warrior
empress! He said that you must be a good teacher. You are lighting my path.
  -None can underestimate the power of stories, he said, humbly.
  -My Father is away from court so much – he is not the Magician to me. I must
gather round me the best teachers to enable me to rule wisely; soldiers,
ambassadors, cooks, gardeners, builders, sailors, spiritual leaders from other
lands…our own Sufi Masters…She opened her eyes at last. I will try not to ask too
many questions each time you read to me. Over time everything can be
discussed. It will be a discipline for me to ask one question after each tale and
reflect upon your response.


                                                                                    22
  Kamil was flattered though he tried not to show it. -I hope I find answers that
satisfy your curiosity, your Majesty.
  -You will Kamil. I feel myself at an opened door when once there seemed no
exit from the room I have occupied all my life. There are twenty two tales in your
book are there not? He nodded. A little over three weeks if I come to hear and
discuss a tale each night. It will bring us to a crossroads in my life! How
opportune! Perhaps our meetings will help me face events which could change
the course of the empire’s history! Kamil felt a nervous tic start under his left lid.
His book might have such influence? He tried to concentrate on what she was
saying though her words seemed to carry from a long distance.
  -And is nearly time for me to be elsewhere. Here is my question! Already the
boy-Magus has shown that he is without sentimentality. His emotions are ruled
by his head. He will not go back to try to save his neighbours and friends, the
people with whom he has grown up. Is this aspect of character essential for a
great spirit?
  Kamil dropped his eyes and assembled his thoughts, carefully. -I do not wish
to talk of what is to come in the story – and I have no knowledge of what you
remember from your own reading – but I have tried to portray a youth at a
certain point in his life. He is still only the Fool and not yet a Magician figure like
his Father. But he has been born different from others. His mind is not ensnared
by emotion in the same way. It is a spare mind. For the moment the world only
consists of his Father, his absent Mother, his horse and nature, itself. We will see
how he grows. Perhaps a sign of a Magus is the skill of detachment in even the
most desperate of circumstances, of weighing all things, of forecasting how ends
can only be reached by employing certain means.
  -He is a model for good rule. Always the Emperor must place on the royal
scales, the good of the whole against the desires of the few. Kingdoms are not
havens of total benevolence. She looked at the stacked cards. Well, the boy is
growing. He is a quick learner. Let us see, tomorrow, where his journey takes
him next.

                                            ‫٭‬

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